Hiking for Mountain Trout in the Pacific Northwest

It’s no secret that lots of people in the Pacific Northwest like to hike, and I enjoy hiking and backpacking as much as anyone. But for me, it’s often a means to an end. And that end is spectacularly colored alpine trout.

According to WDFW, Washington state has about 1,600 high mountain lakes, ranging from backyard pool-sized tarns to reservoirs that fill entire valleys. And thanks to the industrious work of stockers, and natural distribution via birds, flooding and who-the-hell-knows-how-they-got-up-there, many of them are full of lightly pressured cutthroat, rainbows and eastern brook trout.

Schaefer Lake Brooke Trout

Schaefer Lake Brooke Trout

Like any fishery, the first step is deciding where to go. But unlike most angling, you don’t have the luxury of stopping on the side of the road to check water conditions. Due to our lingering maritime snowpack, this is typically a July – September fishery as many lakes remain frozen until mid-summer. Early and late season it’s worth checking the Washington Trails Association website or other hiking resources as they often have trip reports and photos that will reveal snow and melt-off conditions.

If you’re uncertain a lake even contains fish, manage your expectations. Half the fun is exploring new areas, and while you may get skunked, you could stumble upon a new lake that yields 12 – 16” brookies on every cast (see Schaefer Lake below).

Best Trout Lakes in Washington’s High Country

Many anglers probably have their favorite mountain fishery, but a few good options are Blanca and Heather Lakes in Snohomish County, Snow Lakes and Schaefer Lake near Leavenworth, Lake Ingalls in the Teanaway, and countless lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness north of I-90. WDFW maintains a list of suggested mountain lakes for fishing on their website, but I can’t speak to the quality of all of them. Yet.

Alpine Trout Fishing Tackle

Now let’s talk gear. First off, everything you’re fishing with you will be carrying on your back. For several miles. Uphill. So leave the tackle box at home and put five to 10 favorite lures or flies in a small carrying case. Throw in some 3 – 6 lb test leader, standard trout split-shot weights, swivels and pliers and you’re good to go. Collapsible backpacking rods are great, but most two-piece trout rods (or four-piece fly rods) can be easily strapped to the outside of a pack.

If I’m gear fishing, small black and green Roostertails are my go to. Dick Nites, Triple-Teasers, and small Blue Foxes also work well. Admittedly, PowerBait or eggs can be very successful. However, fish inhale them and there’s nothing worse than tearing out the throat of a beautiful native cutthroat you’d planned to release. For this reason I avoid bait unless I know invasive brook trout are the lake’s chief occupants. Those I prefer wrapped in aluminum foil with olive oil, pepper and a slice of lemon and placed on the hot coals of the night’s campfire.

A Spirit Lake cutthroat caught on a Roostertail spinner, with 8,364' McClellan Peak in the background.

A Spirit Lake cutthroat caught on a Roostertail spinner, with 8,364′ McClellan Peak in the background.

Fly Fishing for Mountain Trout in the PNW

Fly fishing is my preferred method for mountain lakes. Often overpopulated with a limited food supply, mountain trout are usually on the smaller side, around five to ten inches. A two to five weight fly rod makes them a lot more exciting to play. My first fly here is a universal one: Wooley Buggers. I like them in black or olive with a bit of flash, no bigger than a size #8. Small Sculpzillas can also be effective; trout love that wagging tail. Fish streamers similar to how you would a spinner; cast it out far, then strip it back while alternating the speed and length of your retrieve to imitate a struggling baitfish.

If trout are rising, then you’re in luck. Some of my best dry-fly fishing has been on mountain lakes, and during a hatch 20 fish days are possible. If you can’t match-the-hatch right away, Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams and Royal Coachmans are classic choices worth a try, though you may have to cycle through your box to key in on what’s working. Other general options are ant and beetle flies, or an Iron Blue Dun in size #16, which makes a killer mosquito imitation for the evenings.

The final fly category is nymphs, which are excellent on many small lakes and mountain streams. Copper Johns, Lightning Bugs and Prince Nymphs have all worked for me, though the flash from a shiny beadhead may be more important than the lake entomology. I love a super slowly retrieved nymph for alpine lakes. One of my favorite fish of all time was a brilliantly-colored cutthroat caught on the first cast in a shallow pool nearly 7,000 feet up in the Enchantments Basin on a size #16 Copper John.

Hooked up with an alpine cutthroat in small pool in the Enchantments.

Hooked up with an alpine cutthroat on the fly in a small Enchantments basin pool.

Before we close, I’ll touch briefly on hiking and other gear. A few summers ago I was fishing a lake above Highway 2 when another angler arrived at the top of the 5 mile trail, pulled a float-tube from his huge pack, inflated it by hand, and caught a lot more fish than I did. I’ve never done it, but lugging a raft or float tube into the mountains works.

Most of you probably know hiking gear. But I will stress how important it is to bring a light rain shell and a quality insulating layer on any hike in the Pacific Northwest. It may be sunny and hot at the parking lot, but you never know what the weather will do at 4,000 feet. I always bring a shell jacket and a fleece, they often don’t leave the bottom of my pack, but when they do I’m glad I have them. Get a good weather forecast and carry the Hiking 10 Essentials (first aid kit, knife, compass, extra food, water, etc). This is the mountains you’re fishing in, hang out in them long enough and something will go wrong.

Quality hiking boots and sturdy socks can make a world of difference on any hike, especially with fishing gear on your back. Wool socks typically mean fewer blisters and if your feet are hot on the approach, well you’re fishing a cool mountain lake. Often I’ll bring a pair of flip flops or Keen sandals in my pack, they help with wading or trying to get out to that perfect boulder.

Casting to fish you can see is the best. Mountain lakes are typically quite clear, but even so polarized glasses mean you can see more fish. They also block out high-altitude UV rays and are definitely worth bringing along.

Be sure to check local regulations, as not all mountain lakes in our region are open for fishing. And don’t be afraid to keep a few fish if the regs allow it, as I said these lakes often get overpopulated. Just be sure you’re able to keep your catch cool on the hike out, or you can enjoy them over a fire or stove while backpacking.

Lastly, don’t forget your swimsuit or board shorts. If the fish aren’t biting, a hike followed by a swim in a cool mountain lake is always a great way to spend a hot summer day.

Chase Gunnell is a PR professional in Seattle and former journalist. When not helping clients tell their story, he’s salmon fishing on Puget Sound, backpacking for wild trout on the fly, or snowboarding every month of the year on the Northwest’s volcanoes. He can be found at www.chasegunnell.com. Photos of the author and Spirit Lake cutthroat courtesy of Kellen O’Connor.

It's hard to beat the scenery that comes with fishing mountain lakes in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s hard to beat the scenery that comes with fishing mountain lakes in the Pacific Northwest.



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3 Comments

  1. ya i fish the high lakes around baker,uppey finney, and up on the pass going to withrop theres tons of fish

  2. Avatar of Chase

    Agreed, though black is a close second. If you like using olive green wooley buggers, try the Thin Mint Wooley Buggers, they have a flash body that I think makes them even more deadly!

  3. wooley boogers work the best for trout olive green

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